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Ceci n'est pas une NPR

Not All Public Radio is NPR

As This American Life’s Seth Linn explains, “NPR is the Kleenex of public radio brands.” Just like how you might ask for Kleenex, no matter what brand logo is on the tissue box, or ask for a Coke when you just want a soft drink, many listeners simply think all public radio is NPR.

The reality, of course, is more complex. On The Media’s Chris Neary took a stab at explaining this on this week’s show, in a segment titled “This Is Not NPR.” As someone who has been studying noncommercial radio for the last two decades, I can say he did a pretty good job.

I’ve even seen the confusion come up over some of our reporting about college stations that have been sold by their school’s to public radio outfits. I’ve fielded questions like, “Why is NPR taking over college radio?” Now, the fact is NPR is not taking over any college radio stations. However, most of those public stations now occupying former college radio frequencies happen to be NPR affiliates, but NPR didn’t make the purchase.

NPR is actually a membership organization and network that owns no stations itself. The affiliate stations are voting members who help decide the direction of the network, buy programming, like All Things Considered, from NPR, and also distribute their programming through NPR. But NPR is also not the only game in town.

As the On The Media piece reports, Minnesota Public Radio started its own distribution network in the early 80s after NPR refused to pick up its Prairie Home Companion. Now there are Public Radio International, Minnesota Public Radio and the Public Radio Exchange in the public radio distribution game. Even NPR-distributed programs are not necessarily produced by NPR; for instance, On The Media is produced by New York Public Radio.

It’s also important to note that public radio and public radio stations existed before NPR, which was founded in 1970. Before then there were fewer national programs–though stations did syndicate shows to one another–and even fewer daily or live programs, if any.

That said, the bigger point is that public radio is bigger and older than NPR. Though the confusion remains, despite producers’ and distributor’s very clear efforts to say otherwise in the programs themselves.

Pass me a Kleenex so I can clean off the Xerox machine? Somebody dripped a little Coke on it.


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3 Responses to Not All Public Radio is NPR

  1. Jeff Schmidt June 24, 2014 at 2:12 pm #

    Great points – well done. Furthing the confusion is the fact that so much “public” but not really NPR style Radio seems to go out of it’s way to “sound” exactly like NPR.

    There’s dominant story-telling formula, production asthetic and a tone of voice that far too much “not NPR” seems to borrow from NPR.

  2. Paul Riismandel June 24, 2014 at 2:37 pm #

    It’s interesting that you make that point about the “NPR sound,” Jeff.

    Prairie Home Companion, the show that prompted the creation of PRI, was rejected by NPR. And, at least in the 80s, it sounded very un-NPR. If it sounds NPR today it’s because of PHC’s influence.

    This American Life is another example of a show that was rejected by NPR, and also did not sound like anything else on NPR at the time. Of course, now TAL’s influence is so strong that we associate its storytelling style with public radio. But in the late 90s it stuck out like a sore thumb.

    But public radio in general has a sound for the same reasons that commercial radio has a sound. Most producers and air talent get their start the same way, working up through the system. Even if they don’t work for NPR or PRI directly, they are weaned on those shows.

    So I’m not sure that the non-NPR shows borrow from NPR, so much that it’s still a pretty small universe of talent and producers in public radio.

  3. Jerry Drawhorn June 27, 2014 at 7:32 am #

    There’s also the individual syndicated like “Joe Frank” and for news “Democracy Now!” These started on stations or in networks, but became independent.

    What’s missing in the above discussion is that “stations” don’t take over another station either. There’s an intermediary group – the “affiliated” public radio boards that either acts as an “operator” for the original licensee, or who ultimately, may obtain the license themselves. These boards usually consist of mixes of businessmen, politicians, media people, community (fine) arts groups, etc. As non-profits these members of the Board are not supposed to profit from their association. But the association certainly gives them networks for other benefits.

    Then there are the professional staff at the station.

    And finally, a third tier, the “brokers”…who can earn fees for arranging the transfer of the station.

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